A huge front page headline in this morning’s Le Devoir declaring that the Cree of Waswanapi were about to blockade a major highway in defence of their traditional boreal forests in which they have always lived, has directed me back to the subject of yesterday’s Chronicle, namely, the question of “consultations” between governments and the indigenous people, and their long-standing, unsatisfactory relationships.
Waswanipi is the southernmost of Cree settlements in Northern Quebec that lies along that long, lonely 250-mile road between Val d’Or and Chibougamau. At the time of the signing of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) between the indigenous people of northern Quebec and the Quebec government, the Waswanipi people had been dispersed along the road and across the territory, following the closure years before of the Hudson’s Bay post, but the monies provided under the Agreement enabled them to build a new village not far from a big bridge across one of those numberless streams that connect the countless lakes of northern Quebec. When I first visited the region in 1969 long before the new village was created, the only inhabitants were a couple of old Gull brothers, living there with their families, one of whom was an Anglican priest. He showed me the parish book recording births, deaths and marriages: it was a melancholy tale of desperation, for many of the deaths that had been recorded over the years, both of children and their parents, were explained in the record by the abrupt, pitiless word: “starves.”. One of the elderly brothers had lost the lower part of a leg which they told me they had themselves cut off to save the brother from death by gangrene poisoning. Yet these people were hanging on there, living in tents down by the river, if only to establish their rights in their traditional lands. It was in one of their large tents that I first experienced the traditional Indian warmth of a multi-generational family living together in one huge room, the great-grandchildren learning their life lessons from their elders.
Being the southernmost of the Cree, when the Europeans arrived among them with the serious intention of logging their traditional forests, it was the Waswanipi who were first subjected to watching their beloved forests decimated by clear-cut logging machines. This was at a time, well into and even beyond the 1970s, when a municipal government land use survey of the whole area did not even mention the existence of the Cree. So much for consulting them about development.
But as time went on, the government admitted certain Cree rights to a say in the traditional use of their traditional lands. This extended only to the smallish reserves, the so-called Category I lands, and the second Category of lands in which they were granted certain limited powers, provided for them by the Agreement. But as they settled to try to enforce these rights laid out for them in the Agreement, they had the very devil of a job getting either the Quebec or the federal governments to implement the promises made to them, even though they were now recognized as the law of the land.
Year after year, the Cree returned to court to try to get these rights applied: for example, in the disposition of the moose, on whose meat the Cree had always relied for food, southern hunters were accustomed to taking the largest share, but the Agreement set their needs against the more urgent needs of the Cree. The Cree lawyers found it necessary to go to court dozens of times in an effort to impose their rights as written into law by the Agreement, and they usually won these cases. But the effort was immense, the expense high, and the resulting situation, always subject to change, unsatisfactory, and it was this situation that led to the so-called Paix des Braves, in 2002.
The reductio ad absurdum of this roundelay of court cases came over the question of forestry, and the increasing logging of the traplines of Cree hunters. Quebec had a system of plans covering the whole forest area of the province, but eventually a judge, confronted with the Cree argument that these plans were destroying their traplines and traditionally sacred uses of the forest, ordered the government to suspend implementation of its sector plans, and return to court after six months with a plan that was to take into account the needs of the Cree as legally laid out in the Agreement.
This confronted the government with a dilemma: could this ragged band of newcomers into the legal scene (albeit newcomers with the longest provenence, stretching back countless generations to before Europeans even arrived in Canada), be allowed to upset the careful plans for governance of their own Quebec province? They soon stumbled upon a perfect solution: the government decided to change the judge, recusing the man who made the decision for the Cree, and replacing him with a man who could be depended on to find in the government’s favour.
Thus, wondrously, work the laws of democracy in this nation that prides itself so much on democracy.
Enter the Paix des Braves: at its core was the desire of the Quebec government and its agency Hydro-Quebec, to bring under control as part of their extended hydro-electric installation across the Cree lands, the very heartland river of the Crees, the Rupert, a river the Cree had so strenuously defended for quarter of a century. In exchange, they took the money, under a programme that would amount to some billions of dollars over 50 years. In the environmental battle for the future, bowing to the immense pressure of decades of "consultations", the Cree had changed sides.
Sixteen years later, Don Saganash, a Waswanipi trapline tallyman told Le Devoir today that "We want to send a message to the world. We are not against a law or a company in particular, we just want to protect our territory from [industrial] exploitation. We've been fighting for over a decade and we've seen the negative impact it has had in the south with clearcuts. "
He noted that recent publications of the relevant Quebec ministry do not provide for permanent protection of the Broadback Forest area, called Mishigamish, which the Cree of Waswanipi absolutely want to protect. This represents the last 10% of intact boreal forest in their ancestral territory. "We do not ask much, it's just a small space, but part of our way of life," says the trapper, who grew up on this land. "Foresters have already taken 90%, so we want to save what's left for the next generation. "
The article in Le Devoir is like an illustration of my Chronicle of yesterday, outlining as it does years of frustration, of promises made and not kept, and even of failure by the major governing indigenous body, the Grand Council of the Cree, to adequately represent its grassroots members trying to defend their trapline and their last remaining patch of forest.
So much for “consultation.”